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Prehistoric worm with super armor found in China

Scientists have found the fossil of an ancient worm called Hairy Collins' Monster, one of the first creatures to grow rows of spiky armor on its back. It's the King Koopa of lobopodians.

You better not get in a fight with this 500 million-year-old worm. You especially don't want it to catch you looking at its girlfriend. Photo by Jie Yang/Artwork by Javier Ortega-Hernández

Worms today look so wimpy. How do they survive in this world? They don't have appendages to pick up blunt objects and they don't even have the strength to put up a good fight. At least if they had an Adamantium core or some kind of super armor, their survival wouldn't be such a mystery to most people.

At least their distant cousins looked like beasts that could fight back -- like this 500 million-year-old worm recently discovered in South China that looks like the modern worm's badass biker cousin.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge in England and Yunnan University in China announced last Tuesday the discovery of a worm-like creature in the Xiaoshiba deposit. It's called Hairy Collins' Monster, named after palaeontologist Desmond Collins who found and illustrated a similar creature in Canada in the 1980s. They published a paper about this lobopodian, or legged-worm from the prehistoric Cambrian period that looks like the lead singer of an all-worm GWAR tribute band, in the journal for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The fossil reveals that the Hairy Collins' Monster was a creature with a worm-like body covered with as many as 72 sharp spikes. It also had six pairs of legs in the front with a feather-like structure and nine pairs of legs in the back tipped with claws. Scientists theorize that the worm lived a "sedentary lifestyle," making it an easy target for creatures higher up on the food chain, so it developed sharp spikes on its back and body over time to protect itself as it crawled along the ocean floor.

The fossil found in South China appears to be relatively intact, showing the unique, spiked structure of the Cambrian creature and even small details such as its digestive tract and the coat of hair-like structures on its front legs.

Collins' Monster is believed to be a distant cousin of the modern velvet worm, or the onychophoran, a small animal found in tropical forests. It also shares its ancestry with the Hallucigenia sparsa, another creature from the Cambrian period that had a worm-like body covered with spikes. Scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto announced last Wednesday that they had completed reconstructing the anatomy of this fellow lobopodian using electron microscopes to determine the correct location of its head on its body.

"Both creatures are lobopodians, or legged worms, but the Collins' Monster sort of looks like Hallucigenia on steroids," said Javier Ortega-Hernández, a research fellow from the University of Cambridge's Earth Sciences department. "It had much heavier armor protecting its body, with up to five pointy spines per pair of legs, as opposed to Hallucigenia's two."

So the lesson you should take away from these findings is if you ever find yourself watching a Cambrian creature cage match and these two worms step into the ring, put all of your money on the Collins' Monster.